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Protesters Question Police Crackdown at St. Croix Fish Market

July 18, 2008 — A riled group of residents gathered at the Frederiksted Fish Market Friday morning to raise their voices in protest against police coming Thursday and ordering everyone to clear out of the market.
Thursday afternoon Gov. John deJongh Jr. visited the market and spoke with residents who spend their day liming at the market. Not long after deJongh left, say the market's aficionados, police arrived, telling everyone that the governor wanted the market cleared out. Protests began last night and continued today. Many of the protesters said they want the governor to come and talk to them and, if he ordered the place cleared out, to apologize. Frederiksted resident and Native Virgin Islander rights activist Kendall Petersen acted as an unofficial spokesperson for the protesters.
The governor did not order the market cleared, Assistant to the Governor Malcolm M. McGregor told the crowd. McGregor said he was sent to listen to the people's concerns.
While people have a right to use the market, McGregor said, there have been numerous complaints of drug use, drug sales, fights and loud noise from the market, and the people using it need to clean it up.
"I, too, am a member of this community," he said. "Can't we meet and discuss this like adults?"
Behind him men sporadically yelled comments such as "retribution is a hell of a thing" and "Fireburn going to come again."
"If the governor didn't order it, he needs to come here and say so," Petersen said. "Thus far, I believe the officers who said the governor ordered it."
"The police need to apologize," said Abba Nash, a Frederiksted resident.
While this was going on, several local residents busily swept and cleaned the market, and one man prepared a traditional vegetarian yabba pot to cook over a small grill by the beach. Others neatly arranged the well-used wooden checkers, chess and dominoes boards that live at the Fish Market. Acting St. Croix Police Chief Oakland Benta spoke with Petersen in private, then again in front of the crowd of protesters and media representatives.
"Those men came here by my direction, not the governor's," Benta said. "They were carrying out my directions."
Social Scene or Blight?
The Fish Market has become a blight, Benta said.
"I am not saying it is you who are here right now," he said. "After hours there are others who sit here and sell drugs, drink all night and sleep here."
Vagrants living in the market are a problem, too, he said, pointing to a bundle of clothes and blankets shoved up into the rafters of the market shelter.
"It is not us," Petersen said. "Every morning we come here and pick up the little crack baggies and clean up the place. We don't let anything happen while we are here. Let the police come in the wee hours of the morning when the people doing crack or sleeping are here. … Why do the police clear us out? There are no police clearing out the whorehouses on Queen Street or the crack dealers on Hospital Street."
Benta chastised the protesters for the example they were setting: "I see a lot of children here. The tone you are setting with all this cursing and threatening, it isn't appropriate for kids."
Arguing that television was corrupting the youth, not people at the fish market, Petersen veered into a bigoted tirade.
"You wouldn't let an anti-man in your house," he said. "You wouldn't let a dyke in your living room. But cable television puts anti-man and dykes right in your living room. That is where our youth learn about gang violence and learn to be faggots."
Some questioned Petersen's motives for taking the lead and speaking to the cameras.
"Kendall (Petersen) is just trying to get in front of the camera because he's running for Senate," said a government official, who asked not to be identified.
Other's expressed their feelings about the Fish Market from a more gentle perspective.
"This is a most peaceful place," said Omo "Lionness," who declined to give her full name. "I come here all the time and people help each other here. I don't have a car, so sometimes I come here and get one of the brothers to drive me. I eat their food. We come here to play music. It's a place to cool out. I'm a musician and I learned to perform music right here. … The police or the governor needs to apologize."
Akil Braffith, a youth of 19, also said the market has social value.
"If you mess up on the street and you go to the market, they will set you straight," he said. "It is like a big class. We learn from our elders here — when to shut up and when to talk. We learn about life. There was a time when I was on the streets and going wrong, and the guys at the market set me straight. And I am not the only one. … Here is a house for everybody. If you are positive you can stay. If you are negative you can't stay."
Arthur Noble, a recent arrival to St. Croix, agreed.
"In my point of view, the Fish Market represents the culture of the people," he said.
The Lieutenant Governor Steps In
Dissatisfied with the explanations by Benta and McGregor, much of the crowd went down the road to the Police Operations and Administrative Services (Rainbow) Building in Frederiksted.
After awhile, Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis appeared and spoke to the crowd.
"I spoke with the governor this morning and he assured me he had no such discussion with the police," Francis said.
His appearance and concern immediately calmed the agitated crowd.
"That is all we needed to hear," said one man, shaking hands, then hugging Francis. The crowd dispersed not long after.
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